Victorville Sikh asylees1

An estimated 400 South Asian asylum seekers are being housed at the Victorville medium security federal correctional institute (above). Sikh asylees at the prison are not allowed to wear their religiously-mandated turbans, and have no access to vegetarian food. “This is a complete violation of the spirit of our laws, which protect people fleeing violence and persecution,” Munmeeth Kaur Soni, co-legal director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, told India-West. The Indian American attorney has been travelling to Victorville regularly to meet with South Asian detainees. (bop.gov photo)

Facing massive overcrowding at its detention facilities, Immigration and Customs Enforcement is housing hundreds of South Asian asylum seekers at a medium security federal prison in Victorville, Calif., where Sikhs are banned from wearing their turbans and provided no access to vegetarian food, in violation of federal laws.

Indian American attorney Munmeeth Soni, co-legal director of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, told India-West this was the first time in recent U.S. history that ICE detainees have been contracted out to the Bureau of Prisons.

“We are criminalizing asylum seekers and telling them they have committed a serious crime,” stated Soni. “This is a complete violation of the spirit of our laws, which protect people fleeing violence and persecution,” she said.

Attorney Deepak Ahluwalia, who works extensively on Sikh asylum cases, and serves on the Sikh Coalition’s advisory board, told India-West that he has worked at detention centers across the U.S. “I’ve never experienced what’s happening at Victorville. It’s quite shocking,” the Indian American attorney said, confirming reports that Sikh detainees are banned from wearing religiously-mandated turbans, and no accommodations are being made for religiously-mandated dietary restrictions.

Congress in 2000 enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits any prison facility receiving federal funding from placing restrictions on prisoners’ rights to practice their religion while incarcerated, in accordance with the provisions of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

Lori Haley, Western Region communications director at the Department of Homeland Security, told India-West in an e-mail: “Due to the current surge in illegal border crossings and implementation of the U.S. Department of Justice’s zero-tolerance policy, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is working to meet the demand for additional immigration detention space, both long and short term. To meet this need, ICE is collaborating with the U.S. Marshals Service, the Bureau of Prisons, private detention facility operators and local government agencies.”

One thousand beds have been available at Victorville; 209 at FDC SeaTac, Washington; 230 at a facility in La Tuna, Texas; 130 at a medium security prison in Sheridan, Oregon; and 102 at the Federal Correctional Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, according to Haley.

“The use of BOP facilities is intended to be a temporary measure until ICE can obtain additional long-term contracts for new detention facilities or until the surge in illegal border crossings subsides,” Haley told India-West, noting that the ICE detainees are housed away from the general population at prisons. No specific criteria have been established as to which detainees are housed at federal prisons, she said.

The Sikh asylum seekers are mistakenly labelled as “American Indian” or white in the Bureau of Prisons inmate locator, which provides no information on the length of their stay in the prison.

Soni, of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, visits detainees at Victorville on a regular basis. She noted that asylum seekers there are not allowed to wear turbans — though they are allowed to keep their long hair, in keeping with Sikh faith. Vegetarian food is not consistently provided at the Victorville prison, she added. Many Sikhs eschew meat as a part of their religious practices.

At the Sheridan facility, some Sikhs are being forced to cut their hair, said Soni, basing her remarks on anecdotal reports.

The detainees have been denied access to proper medical care, which is currently focused on stemming outbreaks of scabies and chicken pox, according to Soni. Other illnesses have gone untreated, she told India-West.

When ICE detainees initially began arriving at federal prisons earlier this year, they were denied contact with the outside world. Attorneys were not allowed to enter the facilities to speak with ICE detainees.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Immigrant Defenders Law Center jointly filed a lawsuit and successfully obtained a restraining order June 21 which mandates that immigrant detainees being held at Victorville must have access to their attorneys, either by phone or in person. Several pro bono attorneys have stepped in to assist the detainees, many of whose cases have been on an indefinite hold.

“Legal assistance is especially essential for noncitizens trying to navigate the notoriously complicated immigration laws and regulations that are commonly considered second only to the tax code in complexity,” the suit argued. Legal help is particularly critical for asylum seekers who face deportation to a country where they might be persecuted, tortured, or killed,” noted the ACLU in a press statement.

Ahluwalia of the Sikh Coalition told India-West that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has completely re-defined who can apply for asylum. Victims of domestic violence no longer qualify; victims of private persecution, including beatings and torture, also are ineligible under Sessions’ definition.

Prior to the Trump administration and Sessions, the government had to show a high legal standard for detaining someone for over six months, and had to allow them to be released on bond if the government could not prove its case. Now, it is very difficult to be released on bond, said Ahluwalia. The attorney uses a tactic with judges, allowing them to place ankle monitors on his clients so that they can be released on bond with federal authorities being able to track their whereabouts.

The administration has also rescinded the Morton memo, which defined priorities for deportation, and allowed low-risk detainees to be released until their cases were heard. Now, there are no enforcement priorities, stated Ahluwalia. “It’s a one size fits all,” he told India-West, adding that he is also seeing a greater number of asylum cases being denied.

The large denial of asylum cases from Indian applicants has placed a greater burden on the Indian government, which must issue travel documents before the asylee can return to the home country. Documents that used to be issued within four to five months now may take up to a year, said Ahluwalia.

The Bureau of Prisons had not returned calls or e-mails for comment by press time. In an email to the Desert Sun, the BoP said that the Victorville facility is "working to secure a vendor to allow ICE detainees who wish to order turbans to do so through the institution's commissary."

BoP said that detainees have the option to choose a no meat entree for every meal, including vegan options which support religious dietary accommodations.

(See related story in India-West here.)

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